Published June 23, 2010
A Novel Situation
Nick’s summer-reading breakdown
Summer is the season to let go. You exercised for months, so now, feel free to grab that fourth hot dog. This winter, you actually watched The Blind Side, starring (Oscar-winner) Sandra Bullock. In August, wash that down with The Expendables, starring (Fulbright scholar) Dolph Lundgren. You put in the time to psychically and culturally better yourself. Summer is when you flush all that hard work down the toilet. It’s awesome.
Then there’s the beach read, the written word’s version of the Travel Channel. You can pretend you’re learning, but you’re really just watching a fat man trying to keep down a seven-pound burrito.
There are principles to this form of escapism: 1) It’s a throwaway. If the book falls in the Sandals pool, there are 1,000 more copies waiting at the airport; 2)The plot typically involves lawyers or lovers; and 3) I tend to stay away. I once read Jennifer Weiner’s Good in Bed, and my testicles still haven’t redescended.
I enjoy noir. One of my favorite authors is Ken Bruen, and in his stories, damaged men riddled with self-hatred get blackout drunk and kill each other. They’re a joy.
The books of Elin Hilderbrand are the polar opposite, but just like noir, her beach reads have a formula. In her novels, beautiful people deal with unexpected love and loss against the backdrop of Nantucket. Her latest tome, The Island, focuses on Birdie Cousins and her daughter, Chess, who loses her Ivy League fiancée in a mountaineering accident. Or there’s A Summer Affair, in which a car accident forces Claire Crispin to give up her dream of glassblowing. Seriously.
I sound pompous, but these novels are popular. In the public library system, more than a third of all the Hilderbrands are checked out. For Bruen? Just 17 out of more than 200.
I try to be objective about these things, but the first page in Hilderbrand’s The Castaways had me cringing. In walks Sergeant Dickson, but uh-oh, he’s “without his usual peppermint breeze of self-confidence.” (Only in Nantucket do the cops smell like candy.) Seems Tess and Greg MacAvoy drowned, and now their close-knit group of friends is coming apart at the seams. I’d tell you more, but I barely cared myself. What kept me engaged was detecting the beach-read components.
First, everyone comes prepackaged with adjectives. Characters aren’t developed as much as traced from preexisting archetypes. Thus we mourn the loss of Greg, who “had six-pack abs and the shoulders of Adonis” and a voice “somewhere between Frank Sinatra and John Mayer.” I read that, and I’m glad Greg is dead. There’s a palpable sense of laziness to the description, like the novel was written by someone on vacation, not for someone on vacation. This is a world where thunder sounds like “someone on the second floor was picking up large pieces of furniture and then letting them drop.” and points of comparison include “the Chief was so humorless, he made Jeffrey feel like Jay Leno.” (Any place where Leno is the apex of comedy isn’t a place I want to visit.)
Pronouns also play an immense role. As in a Dick and Jane book, the subject of each sentence is explicitly stated and underlined; like Hilderbrand is worried we’re going to get the staggering amount of six total characters all jumbled. What’s worse is that the characters are endlessly thinking about one another. Delilah’s mad at Tess. Phoebe loves Addison. I once decided to count the number of first names on the page I was reading. 37! After that, each page read like roll call at an elementary school for children with incredibly unimaginative parents.
Of course the biggest device is that we’re constantly forced to acknowledge the drama. I’m nearly paying a compliment when I say that The Castaways reminded me of Anna Karenina, the last novel I made myself read. For 800 pages, Anna weeps and frets about which rich jerk she should spend her life with, until she finally throws herself under a train. Coincidently, the 7:10 to Moscow is my favorite character in that book.
Beach reads are about escape, but to enjoy the story, you have to go someplace unexpected. I already know how to be white and privileged. Give me switchblades. Give me renegade cops. Give me homicidal motorcycle gangs on a killing spree. And then, I can relax.